A few years ago I met a warm, kind person called Rebecca Palmer. As well as being warm and kind, Rebecca is an encouraging, supportive and a wonderful kid lit creator. Her debut book, ‘Monkey Mind’ is published by Little Pink Dog Books and was launched at the Children’s Literature Centre in Fremantle last year to a packed crowd. What I most love about this interview is Rebecca’s openness and honesty in answering my questions, but also her generosity from sharing how to tips for book launches, where to get connected and giving you an insight to why she creates. Enjoy this interview with the inspirational, Rebecca Palmer.
NLK: How did your journey to become an author-illustrator begin?
RP: Hand tinted etchings from scientific journals, illuminated manuscripts, antique maps and intricately illustrated coloured plates in children’s books fascinated me when I was little. These images teased me into reading at an early age – to find out what was going on – to solve the mystery. Printmakers and illustrators would often hide little elements in visual text, known now as ‘Easter eggs’- symbols and elements that told a different story to the written mode of text. It was a joy to find them and crack the visual code.
I moved from Geraldton to Perth after high school. Worked in various jobs, experienced the ‘real world’ then decided to try graphic design at Curtin University. University life was wonderful. Education then was free (thanks Bob Hawke) and people could focus on their interests rather than the highest earning degree possible. Unis churned out graphics grads and you couldn’t swing a cat in the Red Parrot without clocking a few. I worked in advertising and design for a couple of years and was asked by an old tutor if I’d like to teach at the Design Department at Kalgoorlie. Yes! I spent a lot of time in the College library while I was there, looking at the work of children’s illustrators. Somehow, I found an advertisement for an illustrator for Australian Short Stories magazine. I applied and got the job. I made some mixed media and scraperboard illustrations for the cover and interior and some other novels, (no graphics software then) amazed that I could be working two jobs and that one was in the East! (80’s). Years later, I realised my publisher was Pascoe Publishing. I still have some nice letters from Bruce Pascoe at home!
NLK: Can you please tell us about your journey to publication for Monkey Mind?
RP: Fast forward to 2018, I’d found a group of like-minded people; The Society of Children’s Book Writers International (WA) or, as I like to call them, my SCBWIversity. Workshops, retreats, targeted manuscript advice in critique groups and highly supportive Western Australian creators. It was like coming home. I’d already written Monkey Mind but had not sent it anywhere when one of my SCBWI’s gave everyone a heads up about a submissions window from an independent publisher who was looking for stories about children, animals, families and mental health. Pretty much Monkey Mind I thought, and sent it off and forgot about it. I heard back! They’d selected my story from 400 submissions. I got chills when my publisher told me she’d been going through the submissions, read mine, then called out to her partner, ‘I found it!’
NLK: What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in your creative journey?
RP: My career has been punctuated by decisions to walk through beckoning doors. I knew one day I’d regret the not-knowing if I didn’t try. Backpacking overseas, tutoring stints for various design and humanities units, a post grad then back to Kalgoorlie as a truck driver to earn some quick dollars to do more travel. There I met my partner and we chased gold, travelling to mining towns in WA and Queensland with our two young children.
After twenty years of wanting to write and illustrate children’s picture books, I suddenly realised the biggest obstacle I had to overcome in my creative journey was me. My family had numerous medical issues over the years, and I told myself I was too busy, too many commitments, and, horrifyingly when I think back now, too old to try something new. I had created a self-fulfilling prophecy. This story about my life made it easier to ignore the fact that I’d given up on my dream.
NLK: Lilianna Stafford has been your mentor for a number of years. How has having a mentor helped you along your journey?
RP: I was a part time primary teacher yearning to be a children’s author and illustrator and was called in to relieve the day Frane Lessac and Mark Greenwood came to school for an author visit. I attended Frane’s session and was floored. She was incredible. I saw some troubled children totally rapt with her presentation. I’m sure she thought I was quite mad when I told the class I was so inspired I wanted to be like Frane when I grew up. She was very kind and let me email my illustration portfolio to her and pointed me in the direction of The Children’s Literature Centre in Fremantle. I paid for a manuscript assessment with author and illustrator Lilliana Stafford, I felt very timid as I was going out of my comfort zone showing someone I hadn’t met before my ideas and scribbles.
The moment Liliana started to speak I knew I was in the right place. My brain was on fire! As far as I was concerned, she was mine now, and when I saw she was a mentor through the Fellowship of Australian Writers I applied and was granted a mentorship. She worked with me for a year. That manuscript was topical and fixed to a moment of time that has passed so I stopped submitting it, but that didn’t matter so much as I had found a wonderful new friendship, and my writing journey had begun. Whenever we meet, we talk books, art and life. Liliana has since gone on to inspire many other mentees and is now an award-winning sculptor and painter.
NLK: How has your role of primary school teacher and mother informed your creativity?
RP: There are pluses and minuses with being a school teacher. Yes, we know the developmental stages of children, how to teach the content for several learning areas. How to differentiate our lessons so children can have successes when they learn. But this can work against us when we write books. The trick is not to be preachy. That’s a big turn off for any child who wants to go on an adventure with your words or images. ‘Monkey Mind’ does indeed have a message about anxiety, so I wrote a gentle story with engaging images. Some colleagues at school also asked me to read various drafts to students at my school. It helped students to see an adult edit, re-read and edit their own writing and it helped me to gauge whether I was achieving what I set out to do.
My daughter Amber helped me with the most important page in the book. I thought that it would be easy, I just had to write the negative thoughts we say to ourselves and write positive ones, but she hit the roof!
Here’s what she said –
‘Just saying positive statements is not helpful as it makes a person fear failure more. It makes them feel as if they would be letting down themselves or others just because they didn’t do things perfectly because they were told that you can do it and still they didn’t! Instead, it’s better to have a growth mindset and to accept that struggle and failure is a part of the learning process. Allowing a person to forgive themselves for making mistakes and learning from them is in the long run, far better than just believing you should succeed at everything on the first try.’
NLK: Your book launch for your debut book, Monkey Mind was filled with joy and emotion. Can you tell us what that evening represented for you?
RP: The evening meant so many things. I wanted to say something about my dad but couldn’t. He passed away Boxing Day, exactly one month to the day before I got the offer from my publisher. He just missed it. The last three years have been very tricky. There were other people who meant a lot to me who were unable to come. Mum, a writer herself, was the first to motivate me on this path. She won a mentorship through Writing WA when she was 78 and was mentored by Ken Spillman. Mum travelled five hours on a bus to get to the launch. My daughters (who, against the odds, are artists too and my muses for Monkey Mind), were there helping make everyone feel comfortable and welcome. I had so many people to thank, to be grateful for – my school, colleagues, friends and family. People who offered to help before I asked. Brought flowers. A brilliant cake, a hand crocheted monkey for my teachers visits, some wonderful photography of smiling faces I missed because I was signing books so hard! So, I was a bit emotional, but I don’t think I actually disgraced myself! Liliana’s speech made me a bit wobbly too.
NLK: Have you any advice to share with emerging creatives?
RP: First, congratulations on getting this far! Regardless as to what happens from here on and how tricky the journey is to get here – you did it! It’s a massive achievement and you need to take time to reflect on what you’ve achieved.
Here’s a list of things which may help emerging authors:
- Find your creative tribe. They are your go-to people if you need advice from those already at the coal face. People in general are very nice and love to help.
- There are FB groups for most things these days, but if you can’t find your peeps, make the group yourself. Go on a sketch and scribble walk, join a champagne drinking life drawing club, find other emerging authors to share the ups and downs and you’ll be less likely to give up.
- Apply for grants, residencies, mentorships and awards. It’s hard work, but worth it, because most people are put off by the hard work, they’d rather be creating. So, and this mindset has worked for me, less competition and more chance you’ll get one if you do it right.
- Read the submission details. Re-read it. Then leave it for a day and read it again. 50% of applicants will not have answered the brief properly or will have ignored an instruction and this just makes the sort easier, they go straight to the ‘hard no’ pile.
- Don’t copy and paste from an old application. Make some comment early on that lets the reader know that you have taken the time and the care to write this for their eyes, and they will read on.
- Don’t say you’re not good enough and not even attempt it. I wouldn’t say that I’m the best artist in the world, or even have the best ideas, but I don’t give up. I dust myself off after the knock backs and try again. I research harder, try to follow the hints, the instruction, the messages. It’s part of being a lifelong learner.
Here’s my five top book launch tips for anyone launching a children’s book, (some was advice was given by very knowledgeable SCBWI friends).
- Do a book give away before the launch on somebody else’s Instagram.
- Add the words ‘my new picture book(title) will be out in(date) on your instagram bio or website.
- Plan your event. Support local business. Give them a plug whenever you can. – Ask – What activities will I have? Food? Drinks? Who will take the photos because you’ll be busy signing books! (Please look at the cake and the author shots on my Instagram for these creative geniuses).
- Practise your speech. Time it. Write it over a few days. You will have to be succinct.
- Google yourself and your book before and after the launch. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s very interesting to see your book pop up in unusual places and I actually found I was included in a Christmas Book list by a respected publisher! I was then able to use that in my marketing too.
NLK: What message do you most hope readers will take away from your book?
RP: You feeling anxious is your body’s way of trying to keep you safe. This is normal. Sometimes we need to give it some help.
Everybody feels this way sometimes. There are things we can do to help, we need to find the thing that helps us.
Be kind – to yourself.
About Rebecca Palmer
Rebecca is a children’s picture book author and illustrator, printmaker, teacher resource writer, primary teacher and speaker. She is a fierce advocate for the power of visual language to enable children to decode hidden or implicit messages in their world.
Connect with Rebecca
Instagram | rebecca_j_palmer_books
Facebook | rebecca_j_palmer_books
Twitter | rebecca_j_palmer
Website | rebeccajpalmer.com
Email | email@example.com
About Monkey Mind
Piper wants to try lots of new things, but something always stops her – her monkey! Some monkeys are playful. Some monkeys are fun. Not Piper’s monkey.
Piper’s monkey is very, very, naughty. Everyone else can tame their monkeys. So why can’t Piper?
Monkey Mind is a gentle story for children and adults about the worrying thoughts that cause anxiety.